Buoyed by a new agreement to increase testing for the novel coronavirus, Maine Gov. Janet Mills is modifying her plan to restart the Maine economy. Her revised plan will allow restaurants and retail stores to reopen with new safety restrictions, but with a key caveat: It will only apply to mostly rural parts of the state.
The governor's updated plan will allow dine-in service at restaurants to begin May 18 and retail stores to reopen on Monday, but it will apply only to 12 of Maine's 16 counties. She is calling it her Rural Reopening Plan.
"That is aimed at reopening certain businesses, additional businesses in more rural parts of our state over the next several weeks," Mills said.
The governor says the revamped plan is designed to allow more economic activity in counties where COVID-19 is believed to be less prevalent than in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot where confirmed cases are higher and where the virus has spread via community transmission.
Retail stores in the other 12 counties can reopen as long as they limit the number of customers based on a six-tier, sliding scale of a store's square footage. For example, a retail store with at least 7,500 square feet can have five customers at a time beginning Monday; stores between 12,000 and 18,000 square feet can have 35 customers at time, and they must be at least six feet apart while standing in line to checkout.
Restaurants in those same counties will be allowed to open May 18, provided staff take certain precautions, such as wearing face masks, frequently washing hands and replacing paper menus with laminated ones that can be cleaned after each use.
"And to space out occupied tables at least six feet apart," Mills said. "This isn't going to be easy."
Mills said the changes were prompted by discussions with business owners and trade associations, as well as an agreement her administration announced Thursday that could triple the state's testing capacity for COVID-19.
Public health officials believe that new capacity will allow them to better track and contain the outbreak, identify clusters should any emerge and effectively replace the statewide restrictions with plans targeted to specific regions.
Shah says the increased testing could yield more confirmed cases, even in the counties that are currently showing very few. If that happens and clusters or community transmission are identified, then Shah says the loosening of business restrictions set to begin Monday could be reversed.
"We go into this expanded testing capacity eyes wide open," he said. "We know that when we look for things we may find them. But we also know that we've got a plan in place for if, or when, we detect those new cases."
Several of the rural counties share borders with the four counties with community transmission and higher case counts. The governor says there is no restriction on travel between counties, but people should continue to use caution and stay home when possible.
"Just because the store is open or a restaurant 10 miles down the road is open doesn't mean you have to go there," she said.
The governor says the same applies to business owners nervous about reopening — they should not do it if they do not think they can do it safely.
As for retailers and restaurants in Maine's four more densely populated counties, they will likely have to wait to open until at least June 1.
Updated 4:55 p.m. May 8, 2020